Nuncio to Syria says priests in Homs choose to remain despite violence

12hp00721.jpgDamaged houses are seen in Homs in central Syria, in this handout picture received Feb. 8. Some priests have decided to stay in battle-scarred town, even as government forces intensified their strikes against a revolt against Syria’s president, said the Vatican’s nuncio in Syria. (CNS/handout via Reuters)

By Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Some priests have decided to stay in battle-scarred Homs, Syria, even as government forces intensified their strikes against the heart of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, said the Vatican’s nuncio to Syria.

Archbishop Mario Zenari told Catholic News Service in an email Feb. 9 that he had been in almost daily contact with priests in Homs and that “with respect to their safety, the situation is, in certain respects, uncertain.”

“The decision to remain is theirs,” Archbishop Zenari said. “This morning a priest told me that it was impossible to leave the city. Various Catholic families have left the city of Homs in recent days.

“In situations where their own lives and those of their family members are at risk, as is now the case in Homs, the choice to remain or depart must be left to each individual,” he added.

The archbishop also advised Christians throughout much of the rest of Syria to remain in the country “except for situations in which one’s own life and those of one’s family members are in danger.”

Syrian forces have bombarded opposition-controlled neighborhoods in Homs with rocket and mortar fire since Feb. 2 in an attempt to quash the revolt. With 1 million residents, Homs is Syria’s third-largest city.

Despite the violence in response to the nearly year-old uprising against Assad’s rule, Archbishop Zenari said the Vatican has no plans to close its operations in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

“Within the region, Syria is a model of religious tolerance, above all with respect to relations between Christians and Muslims,” he said. “Till now, Christians in Syria have enjoyed great respect from every side in the conflict.”

Meanwhile, Melkite Patriarch Gregoire III Laham of Damascus called upon international leaders to prevent the escalation of violence. News agencies reported Feb. 7 that he said he believed it was possible to resolve the crisis without Assad’s ouster.

“Don’t think about changing the regime, but help the regime change,” the patriarch said.

He concurred with Archbishop Zenari’s assessment that Syria was tolerant of the country’s Christian minority because the Assad regime was secular in nature rather than religiously based.

Catholics in Syria are members of the Armenian, Chaldean, Melkite, Latin, Maronite and Syriac rites, according to the 2011 edition of the Catholic Almanac. About 428,000 Catholics live in Syria, about 2 percent of the population of 20.1 million people.